Impostor syndrome hurts high-achieving women

09 Aug, 2020 - 00:08 0 Views

The Sunday Mail

Women & Leadership

Maggie Mzumara

STUDIES have shown that many successful women suffer from the impostor syndrome.

It is also known as impostor phenomenon, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience and is a psychological pattern in which one doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent and internalised fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.

Despite external evidence of their outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the impostor phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright.

They incorrectly attribute their success to chance or luck, or interpret it as a result of “deceiving” others into thinking they are more intelligent than they perceive themselves to be.

While early research focused on the prevalence among high achieving women, the impostor syndrome was later acknowledged as affecting both men and women.

Studies suggest that more than 70 percent of people experience the impostor syndrome at some point in their career.


The impostor phenomenon was first introduced in 1978 by Dr Pauline Clance and Dr Suzanne Imes of Georgia State University (USA) in their study: “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention”.

Clance and Imes defined the impostor phenomenon as an individual experience of self-perceived intellectual phoniness (fraud).

The two researchers investigated the prevalence of this internal experience by interviewing a sample of 150 high-achieving women.

All of the participants had been formally recognised for their professional excellence by colleagues, and had displayed academic achievement through degrees earned and standardised testing scores.

Despite the consistent evidence of external validation, these women lacked the internal acknowledgement of their accomplishments.

The participants explained how their success was a result of luck, and others simply overestimating their intelligence and abilities.

Clance and Imes believed that this mental framework for impostor phenomenon developed from factors such as gender stereotypes, early family dynamics, culture, and attribution style. Attribution style is the way one explains a negative occurrence in their lives.

High-profile achievers

Research has shown that it is most prevalent among high achievers.

High-profile sufferers have included renowned poet and author, Maya Angelou, former American First Lady Michelle Obama and Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg.

This shows that many of those deemed most successful and capable are more likely to experience self-doubt.

Although very accomplished including being a Pulitzer-prize nominee, Angelou was dogged by the impostor syndrome and had this to say: “I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out’.”

Michelle Obama has in interviews acknowledged the phenomena in her own life and said that the feeling “never really goes away”.


According to a study conducted at Heriot-Watt University and the School for CEOs, which surveyed 300 senior executives from a range of organisations, female leaders experience the impostor feeling to a higher degree than men.

More than half (54 percent) of women scored frequent or high versus 24 percent men.

Unconscious bias around gender and leadership was a highly likely contributing factor, the researchers stated.

They also found that anxiety and perfectionism played a huge part here, including the fear of making mistakes which often sees many with the syndrome preparing so much for assignments or projects or procrastinating and delaying what they need to do.

Those with impostor syndrome are psychologically uncomfortable with acknowledging their role in their own success, but their negative thoughts, often referred to as “cognitive distortions”, are based on anxiety, rather than objective facts.

Apparently impostor syndrome strikes mostly and hardest once one leaves their comfort zone.

According to Gemma Sole, digital and client engagement director at the School for CEOs at Heriot Watt University, among other things, the impostor feeling can lead to a dip in performance, and may result in a significant number of leaders not reaching their full career and economic potential as a consequence.

Impostor syndrome is increasingly presented in the media and lay literature as a key behavioural health condition impairing professional performance and contributing to burnout.

Versions of the syndrome

Building upon decades of research, Valerie Young further looked into fraudulent feelings among high achievers.

From her book “The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women”, she was able to identify five subgroups this syndrome often falls into: the perfectionist, the superwoman/man, the natural genius, the soloist and the expert.

Contributing factors

Research has shown that there is a relationship between the impostor phenomenon and the following factors: family expectations; overprotective parent(s) or legal guardian(s); graduate-level coursework; racial identities; attribution style; anxiety; depression; low self-esteem; perfectionism; and excessive self-monitoring, with an emphasis on self-worth.

Managing impostor


According to experts, there are some steps one can take to identify and overcome impostor syndrome patterns: remember that success is subjective; set boundaries around systems or individuals who detract from your personal wellness and growth; take ownership of objective successes; perform consistent self-care check-ins; and if need be, speak with a therapist or some trusted counsellor or advisor.

Maggie Mzumara is a leadership, communication and media strategist as well as corporate trainer. She advocates women leadership and is founder of Success in Stilettos (SiS) Seminar Series, a leadership development platform for women. Contact her on [email protected] or follow on Twitter @magsmzumara

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